“I’m really happy about it,” the comedian says of her recent stand-up special, Rape Jokes, which she released for free on her website back in June. “And I’m happy we’re having this conversation, and I’m, like, so ready for this to not be my life.”
Esposito is perched on the edge of a high-backed velvet chair in the lobby of the Hyatt hotel in Montreal, the hub of the annual Just for Laughs comedy festival. She’s just given a talk, moderated by IndieWire’s Liz Shannon Miller, in a small conference room for an audience of about fifty men and women (but mostly women), titled “Rape Jokes and Resilience.” It’s been an intense couple of months of interviews and press appearances to promote Rape Jokes, and Esposito is thrilled at the positive response it’s gotten. But she’s ready for it all to end. “I kind of just want to go out to dinner with folks.”
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It’s not a coincidence that Esposito’s special — which masterfully reorients the conversation about rape jokes from the perspective of a survivor — was released in the wake of a near-global reckoning with the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment. As mainstream media outlets continued to report on the #MeToo movement, Esposito noticed a troubling pattern: The stories quickly shifted focus from the victims of assault to its perpetrators, the prominent men who’ve been exposed as abusers and subsequently fired or suspended from their jobs. There seemed to be endless questions about how and when these men should return to public life — the “redemption arc,” as Esposito puts it — and yet very little consideration of life for their victims in the aftermath of rape or assault.
“It was just that I didn’t see someone else doing it,” Esposito says of her special. “I was like, ‘Surely this title exists.’ I was waiting for someone else to do it, and it didn’t get done, so I did it.”
Like the material itself, the process of filming and releasing Rape Jokes was unique. In preparation for her taping, Esposito first toured the hour around the country, but in much smaller venues — fifty to a hundred seats — than the large theaters she’s graduated to at this point in her career. She did this for the comfort of the audience members, some of whom may have been survivors themselves, and for herself; she wasn’t sure how it would feel to open herself up like this, to come out onstage and talk about herself as a survivor of rape.
The shoot came together in just six days. The UCB Theatre on Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles — where Esposito lives with her wife, the comedian Rhea Butcher — donated space, and many others donated their time to film and edit the special. The website that houses Rape Jokes, along with a link to donate to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), was built in nine days; the special was released a little over two weeks after it was taped. The total budget was a paltry $2,800. Although anyone can go to cameronesposito.com and watch the special for free, to date, viewers have donated over $65,000 to RAINN.
“I did this with no network behind me. So I don’t look at this as scalable to literally anything,” Esposito says. “I’m very proud of the engagement that I had with the folks who care about me and the friends I have in the industry who supported this project, because that actually has never been done before.”
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For Esposito, art and activism have always been entwined. Growing up Catholic in suburban Chicago,she dreamed of becoming a priest; later, she went to school to be a social worker. Her career in comedy has always converged with her identity as a queer person, and her desire to create safe spaces for other marginalized people. “When I look back on it, and I wasn’t aware of this at the time — I think I started stand-up to make myself safer,” she says. “Like, come out to everybody in the audience at once in a way where they essentially can’t kill me. There’s witnesses. I don’t think I felt very safe as a queer woman, and I think that this was a path that I used to mitigate risk. I also think I’ve always had the perspective that that bubble of safety shouldn’t end at my body. I wanted to create that for other folks.”
It’s a lot of emotional labor to take on, on top of the grueling routine of nonstop performing and touring that all stand-ups endure. A straight white man doesn’t necessarily have to explain to his audience how the world looks through his eyes, and what it feels like to move through the world in his body. Esposito and Butcher host a weekly stand-up showcase in L.A. called Put Your Hands Together, and Esposito describes a recent show “where this guy got up and was just telling one-liners. He was so good at it. He’s a straight white dude. And they were so funny, and I was just like, ‘Oh man, I’m so jealous of that.’ ”
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But, she adds, “that’s not a life I’ve ever lived.” A straight white comic might be more famous and successful, might be more likely to land a major network deal, but Esposito has something else. “In a way that is uncomfortable but also beautiful, I am important to people in a way that some folks who do my job are not,” she says. Just before we sat down to talk, she was handed an envelope with her name on it and a hand-drawn rainbow — a note from someone in the audience at her talk. She gets that a lot. “People wait a long time to talk to me after shows, they tell me stuff, they bring me things, they burst into tears. It’s a different thing. And I am grateful to have that.”
She’s also no doubt grateful to move on from this chapter — to not have to get up onstage, or sit for interviews in hotel lobbies, and talk about rape. After all, she’s not a crisis counselor; she’s a stand-up comedian. She plans to tour new material in the fall, and to sell vinyl copies of Rape Jokes — the proceeds, of course, will go to RAINN. But even as she moves forward with her career, she’s made what looks to be a lasting mark on the culture of comedy. “My goal,” she says, “was to be the number one Google result when you type in ‘rape jokes.’ ”
There’s a moment in every woman’s life when she discovers her body isn’t her own.
At the first uninvited touch, the first catcall, the first time the word “no” is said but not heard, she realizes it was never hers. Or not entirely — not like she thought it was, elbows and knees and thighs moving under her power, the whole many-celled complex of flesh subject solely to her will. To some it will always be property, to be moved and manipulated, admired or denigrated, for their own fleeting pleasure or gain. To move in a female body is to carry yourself through the world as a flicker of will in a machine others consider a tool for public use.
I was fourteen the first time I let something happen to my body. I hovered just inside myself, in the space where I knew what was happening to me had little to do with what I wanted, or what would give me pleasure. I lay back feeling the minutes pass with unsultry slowness, letting the whole thing commence with little involvement. All I wanted was to keep the peace and keep what I thought, back then, was love. The assignations continued for months. He was older; technically, it was illegal; practically, I channeled the dual forces of self-loathing and love, so potent in me then, into the process of making myself disappear for twenty minutes at a time, and letting my body remain on the bed.
I was too young even to be angry at him.
I displaced my anger at him, transferred it to anger at the strict religion I grew up within that quite literally prohibited women’s voices from being heard and from leading prayer; that partitioned us off in holy spaces, that told us our bodies were unclean. I ate on fast days and hid in the bathroom during morning prayers at school. I turned my anger at him into anger at myself. I burned myself with matches. I learned how much pressure one must apply to cut oneself with a safety razor: Breaking the skin is easy; making a thick scar is much harder. The physical piercing of my skin made the wave of pain I felt crest and break; physically anchored somewhere in the world, it could no longer flood my mind.
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The official doctrine of Orthodox Judaism prohibits all contact between members of the opposite sex outside of the covenant of marriage, even a brush of the hand or a tap on the shoulder, because women exist in a perpetual state of menstrual impurity.
In practice, of course, animal urges dart through the thickets of desire; hands touch hands and more than hands. But throughout those early encounters I grew used to what would define so much of my contact with men in the subsequent fourteen years. My body was a vehicle for the fulfillment of male desires. The ghost of my will flickered in the machine, tapped out for whole incidents, returned. Each time there was a little less of me when I came back to my body. To those I wanted to love so much, my breasts and my thighs were more welcome than I would ever be.
I didn’t know to expect any better.
I still wanted to be touched and to be adored, wanted sexual fulfillment, even if I wouldn’t have phrased it that way back then. That thirst returned me again and again to the brackish, putrid pool of bad love.
But it’s one thing to yield to an advance in the name of peace — to go along out of appeasement or even curiosity, or the hope that what happens will give you pleasure, even if it doesn’t. It is another thing entirely to say “No,” and say it loudly, and have it ignored. It removes all plausible deniability, and exposes the bad bargain for what it is.
I don’t remember all the details of the night that first happened to me; it happened to me precisely because I was in a state not to remember all the details. All he wanted, said my classmate who was mostly a stranger, was a kiss. He pulled me onto his lap and I wriggled away, as I stumbled out of my dorm room and he followed, as I took the back stairs and he pinned me against the wall of the staircase, as I turned my head away so forcefully my neck hurt the next day, as I pursed my lips so hard they swelled. The world wheeled drunkenly around me but I knew I had felt the word “no” in my throat; my vocal cords had vibrated, my tongue made the appropriate motions, my mouth opened, the word arced toward him in the air, and it didn’t matter. It is one thing to be thrust against as you lie there so indifferently you try imagine yourself into bodilessness. It is another thing to have your voice taken from you — to have your dominion over your body challenged. I extricated myself from him like a splinter taken from an eye: painfully, painfully.
The man who raped me, years later, had been my lover for months. He was not a stranger. He had doled out pleasure in miserly fashion and I had taken what I could. But I was drunk — not catastrophically; I could walk; I felt safe enough to have gotten drunk, to be a little dazed, a little dreamy — and I realized too late that he had entered me without a condom, the condom I took from my purse and gave to him and asked him to wear; I had agreed to sex but not this sex, not unsafe sex, I had agreed to sex with a man who had made me feel safe and then had waited until I was weak enough to violate. He tried to placate me but I couldn’t be consoled, not by him, at any rate. I went to his roof and cried until the windows of Manhattan were too blurry to see on the horizon, and melded together into a wobbly blush of light. For a decade I had vacated my body when I chose to, letting men use my limbs for their pleasure; but I had allowed it, I had chosen it, I had known what I was in for. This act of theft rendered my body not my own.
Looking back over fourteen years of involvement with men feels like flipping through a catalogue of trysts and violations. A small Rolodex of assaults, each one still searing to remember — groped by strangers on a train and in a backroom and a city park; fingers appearing where they had no permission to be, or where they had been forbidden to be; kisses taken, not given; an array of wheedling and incessant demands reluctantly acceded to and later regretted. Good and bad love are each represented there, but when I am alone at night the bad love thrums up from my memory, reminding me I am less than I was.
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When I hear women talk about the frustrating ways our voices seem to disappear into a void when we speak with men — when our areas of expertise are explained to us; when our work is undermined; when our contributions are dismissed in meetings, our credentials doubted, the very tones of our voices subject to criticism — I think of how much these complaints overlap with the ways our control of our own bodies is denied us. I wonder how many women have said “no” and had it deliberately go unheard, like so many other words we speak. When I talk about what I know — about the history of the Hebrew language, or Russian literature, or the strange depths of the Internet — sometimes I think of asserting control over my body and having it denied me, and wonder if I should speak at all.
The laws of this country so often dictate what happens to women’s bodies. The noose around our freedom to control our wombs is tightening, with the prospect of the nation’s highest court dictating from above that we are vessels for the growth of men’s seed, prevented by law from reversing the processes that happen just under our skins.
The notions that we are vessels for pleasure or for procreation are intertwined, and the overarching message is identical: Your body is not your body. Your body is a means to an end; the ghost inside that is your will doesn’t matter. You can say no; you can scream it; you can shatter your larynx like glass screaming no, and there will be those who out of sheer indifference or avarice for pleasure or unhearing zealotry treat it like silence.
I am twice the age I was when I first learned how to disappear inside my body. I wish I could say I have attained some combination of wisdom and clairvoyance that would allow me to foresee who may be a caring lover, and who will treat the word “no” as an inconvenience or as nothing at all. All I have gained is rage: rage that I can feel blazing in every limb, rage at a world that would rather I be a voiceless sac for fetal growth, a mindless conduit for the pleasure of others. I have taken the mourning I feel for the larger and less frightened self I could have been and forged it into a hot little dagger, one that I would like to plunge into the fat and self-satisfied flank of a world so willing to steal my voice. There are days and weeks when I feel like crumbling into ash. But I have chosen instead to fight, to raise a big and hideous and ungovernable howl for the girl I was and the girls who have yet to be. I don’t want them to ever have to pass through the ghastly syllabus of bad-love lessons etched on my skin; I want to erase it, rewrite it, dictate a will and testament that grants every woman absolute dominion over her own four limbs and every cell in between. I want to live with pen in hand, mouth open, reclaiming my voice at a volume that can shatter stone.
In Not Me (1991), the poet Eileen Myles writes, “We live in a culture of vanishing men.” She was referring then to the AIDS epidemic, but the quotation takes on a second reality when applied to our current collective consciousness — a punchline that now presides over every Weinstein, Cosby, or Spacey whose position atop the hierarchy has been challenged over the past year. The downfall of these men, consequently being held accountable for their actions, has opened up new avenues and conversations, reminding the world — and the film industry — what has been lost through the lack of foregrounding of the voices of women, femmes, and nonbinary folks. But we, like Maxine Waters, are reclaiming our lost time. In this sense, the series “The Future of Film Is Female” (at the Museum of Modern Art) is an advancement of the ongoing reckoning, hat-tipping toward such symbols of the moment as “The Future Is Female” T-shirts (or, to take the wording of Tessa Thompson’s tee in Sorry to Bother You, “The Future Is Female Ejaculation”). The program is a beautiful vessel allowing us to collectively grapple with, applaud, and support the future of women in filmmaking and storytelling.
History has been full of F. Scott–and–Zelda scenarios, with women’s perspectives by turns sidelined or co-opted ingloriously by men. Why would women need to tell their own stories? has proven a disturbingly resilient attitude, prevailing through the decades. A recent Wesley Morris article about actress Annabella Sciorra, who fell off the map after she said she was raped by Harvey Weinstein, provides vivid evidence of a man wielding his power to silence those who would challenge his station. There is, therefore, a legacy and a context of urgency to this series of women-directed and -featuring work, which ranges from Shirin Neshat’s Looking for Oum Kulthum (2017), a hybrid piece in which the director examines the life of the legendary Arab singer, to Gillian Robespierre’s funny-sad comedy about a New York family, Landline (2017).
“The Future of Film Is Female” originated as a venture to help women develop shorts and “have their voices represented and respected on equal footing with their male counterparts” (per a MoMA release), but expanded its mission after partnering with MoMA. When I asked Rajendra Roy, MoMA’s Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film and one of the two programmers on the series, why create this now, he wrote: “It’s important not only to celebrate past achievements, but also to nurture the talent to come. More and more, cinema is being driven by women’s choices as audiences. We want to make sure that women filmmakers are speaking directly to those audiences.” One of these talents is Coralie Fargeat, who brings to the slate Revenge (2018), a searing and devastating rape-revenge story that navigates all of the terrifyingly real faculties of abuse onscreen, with a vengeance that feels weighted and necessary. At times the movie’s parameters of survival are so extreme as to seem almost unreal, but it’s nonetheless a timely (and accurate) portrayal of a woman scorned. (Lest we forget, rape-revenge movies are rather unfortunately very often made by cis-men.)
Throughout, Fargeat toys with expectations and desire. From its early stages, Revenge probes the male gaze, opening on the tantalizing sexuality of our heroine, Jen (played so powerfully by Matilda Lutz). By cementing her protagonist’s sexuality from the outset, Fargeat forces the audience to reckon with what their reactions to and interactions with Jen will be like during the film. I, personally, was caught off-guard. When Jen taunts, as she does, floating barely clothed in a miniskirt that hardly conceals her ass or a cutesy red bikini bottom-set, her glittered-star earrings gleaming like a clichéd department-store find, I found myself worried for her. Why isn’t she covering herself, or, at least, acting less brazenly sexual? She’s the only woman in a house of men, in the middle of the desert! But this, I realize, is part of Fargeat’s intent — for us to consider how the patriarchal gaze has seeped into our everyday ownership and surveillance of the female body. It’s such a clever fuck you that it took me a while to fully understand it.
It’s fascinating how we as viewers negotiate when women deserve violence — how so many of us (me included) have bought into the violence of the patriarchy. Films like this are a reminder to ourselves that under no circumstances do women deserve anything other than respect. What I love about the rape-revenge genre is that it feels like a glimpse at the justice that was never afforded us, like seeing a palpable revolution on the screen. Jen is raped, then consequently discarded and left for dead in the bleak cruelties of an unknown desert. She awakens half-impaled by a tree branch; like a lunar moon, she rises, blood congealed to her sides and pouring out into the sand. Already we want no mercy for the men who put her there. We’re vouching for Jen’s resurrection, and their defeat. Fargeat constructs all this beautifully, forcing us to look within ourselves, then root for murder.
In Bar Bahar (In Between, 2017), by Maysaloun Hamoud, we see the lives of three Palestinian women unfold in a way that breaks all the stereotypes of the Western conception of what a Palestinian is, or what being a Palestinian means. Hamoud zeroes in on two friends: Leila (Mouna Hawa), a Palestinian-Muslim criminal-defense lawyer, and Salma (Sana Jammelieh), a lesbian Palestinian-Christian DJ. Leila is generally the life of the party, gregarious and sexy, her mane rapturous in its burgundy halo; Salma is often in her booth, DJing like a regular Samantha Ronson. Both can also outdrink any Irish-sailor type. Nothing much changes when Noor (Shaden Kanboura), a more (outwardly) conservative Muslim as well as a computer-science student, moves into their Tel Aviv flat. Except that, every now and again, Noor frantically completes household activities: cooking arduous meals and cleaning for her fiancé (who we find out she kind of despises, and she has her reasons); putting up Quranic motifs around the space; stamping out cigarette butts; hiding the ashtrays. Kanboura compellingly suggests that Noor is not doing these things out of fear, or even duty, but perhaps out of despondency.
Hamoud’s subtle touches question stereotypes of Muslims and Palestinians; she shows, without making too fine a point about it, how quietly and insidiously anti-Palestinian/anti-Arab ideas float around and exist within Israel. In one scene, with Salma at her job as a cook, she speaks to the chef in Arabic; in short order, the host comes in, chastising them for speaking in their mother tongue. (The nice Israelis out front want to enjoy their meal, not hear y’all speak Arabic!) Salma unleashes her apron and quits. It’s exhilarating to see Palestinians have agency, when so often they’re removed of not only their humanity but their right to demonstration. Salma savors this moment, its poignant air. (The host’s behavior brought back memories of when contemporary asshole Aaron Schlossberg screamed at a restaurant manager because he could hear Spanish being spoken among the employees — another dining-adjacent episode of racist rage, fueled by an exhausting sense of entitlement.) Without giving much away, there is a scene in Bar Bahar that’s lucid and painful in its enunciation of violence. In its aftermath, we see the three women come together, arching toward each other with care, making space for sorrow and pain. Watching it, I was, despite the circumstances, filled with light, because the most ardent truth is: Women have always held each other up.
Among the shorts included in the series — each feature is paired with one, and there’s also an evening of shorts, on July 29, curated by the online movie club NoBudge — is Mariamma Diallo’s Hair Wolf, a winner from Sundance’s shorts competition this year. It’s a hilarious, pseudo-zombie horror (at times recalling Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video), with a distinct commentary on the (eternal) trendification of black bodies. Of particular concern here is the notion of black hair being a commodity that white women think they have access to, because of, well, white entitlement, à la Kim Kardashian in micro braids. So, a white woman goes into a black hair salon and asks for Rihanna-like braids. There’s a short exchange between the two stylists, Janice (Trae Harris) and Eve (Taliah Webster), about money and politics, that resonates in a Get Out sort of way; it’s funny because its verbal navigations of the struggles of exploitation are so real. Diallo accomplishes a heck of a lot of brilliance and hilarity in just twelve minutes.
Another short, Adinah Dancyger’s Cheer Up Baby (2017), stars India Salvör Menuez as Anna and explores the minutiae of being a femme existing out in the world. There are a lot of early descriptions of the languidness of the human body, beginning with a dance class that focuses on touch and movement, evoking the physical boundaries in which we often go about our days. One night, Anna falls asleep on an orange-seated train; she is assaulted by a creepy older man, leaving her whole purview thoroughly shaken. She has phantom hallucinations of his hand on her leg. All of a sudden, a depression creeps in that starts like a thin line and erupts very, very slowly — almost not at all. It’s the sadness lurking behind Anna’s brightness that makes Cheer Up Baby such an enthralling film.
In her 1966 review of Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders, Pauline Kael wrote: “The men who made the stereotypes drew them from their own scrambled experience of history and art.” I see the essence of this observation in how Hollywood functions: Men make art based on fractured bromides. When I asked Caryn Coleman, the guest curator of “The Future of Film Is Female” as well as the director of programming at Nitehawk, about the stakes behind her project, she replied: “There has been a lack of representation of women, and the desire to see more works by them on screen can correlate to our current political climate.” It’s not as if these stories have never existed, but rather that the energy, space, and momentum — as well as, let’s be real, the resources — are now finally being pushed in their direction. The “Future of Film Is Female” series, an unmissable one, further cements that women and femmes of all backgrounds have an ability to tell stories that all of us would be lucky to see.
The first time Iffat was assaulted while riding the subway, she was on the Newkirk Plaza platform in Brooklyn late one morning two years ago. Iffat was at the B/Q stop with her mother and two younger sisters, waiting for a train into Manhattan. (She asked that her last name be withheld for her safety.)
The station was quiet and mostly empty. Suddenly, a man standing nearby opened the lid of his coffee cup and threw the contents at Iffat’s back. As the hot liquid seeped into her clothes, the attacker turned and sped down the platform. Iffat’s mom wiped off her daughter’s shirt, pleading with the girls not to call after the man or say anything.
Iffat, who was twenty at the time, had only recently started wearing the hijab as a way to get closer to God. At first she thought what happened might have been an innocent mistake — maybe the man had wanted to empty some liquid out of the cup.
No, her mom replied. I saw him do it; it was intentional.
“This person, he legit felt that he could do this to me,” Iffat tells the Voice. “He does not see me as a person to do that. You feel nasty yourself when you see yourself through somebody else’s eyes and they don’t see you as a human.”
Earlier this month, New York City’s Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) released a report, based on surveys with more than 3,000 Muslim, Arab, South Asian, Jewish, and Sikh New Yorkers, charting the prevalence of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism in the time leading up to and following the 2016 presidential election. The report, which concludes that New Yorkers from these backgrounds face high rates of bias-based harassment, discrimination, and violence, reminds readers that our country’s growing climate of hate isn’t isolated to Southern cities or Republican strongholds.
One statistic in the report was particularly shocking: Of Muslim Arab hijab-wearing women who participated in the survey, more than one in four (27.4 percent) said they had been intentionally pushed or shoved on a subway platform.
The statistic was especially disturbing to the report’s authors. Widad Hassan, the lead adviser for Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities at the CCHR, is also a Muslim Arab woman who wears a hijab. She tells the Voice that after every terrorist attack or negative media blitz about Muslims, the same message is pushed out to hijabis by their friends, family, even social media: Be careful, be cautious, don’t walk too close to the platform edge.
The survey results “actually put a number to something most Muslim women have in their minds,” says Hassan. “One in four, seeing that number — and knowing that it was not only a fear, but an actual experience, that one in four were pushed or shoved — I would say it was both upsetting and shocking.”
The second time Iffat was attacked, in February 2017, she was on the B100 bus in Brooklyn, en route to the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan. She noticed a man staring at her and tried to ignore him, thinking that maybe he was just drunk. But the man started shouting at her, calling her a terrorist, and yelling, “Take that fucking thing off your head.” She got scared and moved her seat — and he followed her.
“That’s when he pulled my scarf from the back” and tried to pour water from a plastic bottle onto her, Iffat recalls. She says she yelled, “Stop, let me go!” and jumped up from her seat, running to the front of the bus and pleading with the driver to let her off. After he relented and opened the door, Iffat got off the bus and, terrified that the attacker would follow her, ran all the way back home.
Across Europe and other parts of the Global North, research has consistently shown that women are the primary victims of Islamophobic discrimination as well as violent attacks. For her dissertation at the University of Toronto, Sidrah Maysoon Ahmad interviewed 21 Muslim women survivors of Islamophobic violence. “A lot of people would be onboard with seeing Islamophobic violence as racist violence,” Ahmad tells the Voice. “We aren’t there yet to really understand it as gender-based violence.”
Ahmad compares pulling off a woman’s hijab to tearing off her shirt in public – something most people would agree constituted sexual assault: “When it comes to a hijab or niqab [face veil], people don’t have that same visceral reaction” in recognizing the act as a form of nonconsensual undressing or public humiliation. “But we have to remember that the feelings we have about our bodies, and what parts we want to cover or not cover, are completely subjective and socialized.”
After the incident on the bus, Iffat tells the Voice, she felt exactly as she had several years ago — before she had started wearing the hijab — when a man on the street touched her and exposed himself to her. “Those two moments, I didn’t feel a difference in the way that I felt about my body. I felt disgusted in myself,” she says.
Mariam is another New York City resident who’s experienced violence on public transit. Through a translator, the 45-year-old explains how after the 2016 election, as she was waiting to board a train at the 125th Street subway station, a male passenger getting off the train spotted her and then intentionally pushed her. “There was space; there was no need for him to do what he did,” she says. She “could have potentially hurt herself but [I] caught [my] balance.” (Mariam asked for a pseudonym to be used out of concerns for her safety.)
In both Mariam and Iffat’s cases, they said that no bystanders had moved to intervene on their behalf, or even asked if they were all right. Ahmad says this is typical of the women she’s interviewed, something she says often “hurts more than the incident itself.”
Of the New Yorkers surveyed by the CCHR who reported experiencing a bias-based physical assault, most did not report the incident; neither Iffat nor Mariam did so. Hassan blames “a normalization of discrimination – this idea that it wasn’t serious enough to report.” She and other advocates interviewed by the Voice also mentioned language barriers and fears about potential immigration consequences as reasons people are reluctant to go to the police.
Roksana Mun, director of strategy and training at the Jackson Heights-based South Asian community group Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), sees a kind of myopia in most conversations about street-based Islamophobic violence, which tend to focus on the perpetrator of the act and not the climate that drives the behavior.
“For us at DRUM, we look at it from the larger institutional perspective of Islamophobia, not just what people experience interpersonally,” Mun says. For decades, she says, local and national counterterrorism policies — the compulsory registration of non-citizen Muslim men post–9/11, the widespread surveillance of New York City Muslims revealed in 2011 by the Associated Press, to the counter-extremism programs put in place by President Obama — have worked to dehumanize Muslims and cast them as dangerous outsiders.
Mun adds that agencies like the NYPD, the FBI, and Department of Homeland Security have exploitedthe fear of racist violence in Muslim communities to build community partnerships with religious institutions and local leaders, and then used these partnerships to plant informants and gather information.
“When people commit these kinds of individual hate violence,” she says, “it’s really a reflection of the broader behavior that’s been enshrined in policies by law enforcement agencies.”
Ever since she was shoved, Mariam makes sure to be alert and on guard when she travels. She won’t wear shalwar kameez — traditional South Asian dress — when she rides the subway, and she doesn’t enter empty train cars. After being verbally harassed on another city bus in the spring of 2017, Iffat decided to stop wearing her hijab in public, though she admits, “it did kind of strain my relationship with God.” Taking off the hijab hasn’t made Iffat feel safe riding the train, though, and in the past year she’s struggled just to leave the house.
“This entire year I could count on my fingers how many times I’ve been outside or hung out with my friends, because of what happened with me on the public transportation,” says Iffat. “Even coming to [this interview], honestly it took so much mental preparation to do this. But I wanted to do it, and I feel it also has to do with trying to get some sort of control.”
The #MeToo movement has brought new attention to street harassment of women, but Ahmad says she doesn’t think it’s done enough to address the experiences of Muslim women. “I don’t think they’re doing anything” to address gendered Islamophobia, she says. “As a survivor of that specific kind of [Islamophobic] violence, I don’t see myself in that movement. It doesn’t seem connected to the realities of Muslim women.”
Some New Yorkers are taking steps to make their city safer for everyone. The Arab American Association of New York has run bystander intervention trainings to teach people how to address Islamophobic violence when they see it, in tandem with an accompaniment program for Muslim residents fearful of traveling or commuting on their own. The initiative was started in the run-up to the 2016 election, when Islamophobic attacks and harassment began to increase. “We’re trying to get our allies to put their bodies on the line for the people who are directly impacted” by Islamophobic violence, explains AAANY community organizer Reem Ramadan.
Besides calling the police, there are other steps available to people who are victims of discrimination or harassment, including reporting it to CCHR online. People who want to file an official complaint of discrimination can do so in court or through the CCHR’s Law Enforcement Bureau, which is responsible for enforcing New York City’s Human Rights Law. “Nobody should have to live with these daily indignities and consider it as part of their everyday life, and New York City is working hard to change that,” says Hassan.
In March, Ahmad and others launched Rivers of Hope, an online toolkit for women who’ve survived Islamophobic violence, which incorporates a lot of her research documenting women’s experiences with Islamophobic attacks. The kit also includes poetry, information on how to get support, and tips for feeling better in the aftermath of an attack. “Don’t let anyone judge you with how you cope with what happened,” she says. “The incident happened to you. It didn’t happen to anyone else.” To survivors of gendered Islamophobia, she adds: “It’s not your fault, and you’re not alone.”
June has been yet another banner month for discussing the role of women in the restaurant business, and for all the wrong reasons. On June 13, Prune chef-owner Gabrielle Hamilton and her co-chef wife, Ashley Merriman, announced that they would be partnering with accused sexual abuser Ken Friedman to take the place of former chef-partner April Bloomfield at the Spotted Pig. On the 19th, San Pellegrino announced the 2018 edition of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, with its grand total of four restaurants led by women, two of whom have male co-chefs. They also continued on with the outdated tradition of naming a Best Female Chef, not just unnecessarily separating men and women, but also clinging to a binary understanding of gender.
For almost two decades, food writers have adored Gabrielle Hamilton, considering her one of their own. She did, after all, have an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. She did, we all agreed, write one of the greatest food memoirs of all time, Blood, Bones, Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. Ryan Sutton of Eater called her restaurant “as relevant as ever” fifteen years into its life, and in 2017, Pete Wells of the Timesgave it two stars. In the Instagram era, an overlit plate of raw radishes served with sweet butter and kosher salt from Prune became a foodie staple.
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Hamilton had come to epitomize a certain brash femininity in food, her restaurant’s signature color a bright hot pink. She was considered an antidote of sorts to the bro-ness of the city’s restaurant scene, and was of the only two women ever featured during six seasons of The Mind of a Chef; the other, as it happened, was Bloomfield.
But two weeks ago, Hamilton and Merriman made their announcement, undoing almost two decades of goodwill. (Hamilton did not respond to a request for comment on this piece.) Matt Rodbard, editor in chief of Taste,tweeted a concise and near-universal statement: “And Gabrielle Hamilton is cancelled.”
Both the Spotted Pig deal and the World’s 50 Best List’s boys club — which, as a bonus, is also conspicuously Eurocentric — point to just how little has concretely changed since the mainstream emergence of #MeToo and widely vocalized calls for women to be centered in restaurant world discussions. The New York Times had outed Friedman as a serial sexual harasser at the end of 2017, and noted that the Spotted Pig’s third floor was known commonly as “the rape room.” Mario Batali wasn’t only a partner in the massively influential restaurant; he was also a rape room regular.
What was once a place known for being a haunt of the famous and home of an exceptional burger had become ground zero for the #MeToo moment in food. It seemed the revelations would mark a major blow to the industry’s desire to hide its issues on sexual abuse, harassment, and gender-based discrimination. At the very least, many felt, the Spotted Pig should shut its doors for good.
Which is why Hamilton’s announcement felt like such a betrayal. Some hoped she would walk back the decision once she realized how damaging this could be to her reputation. Instead, she and her wife doubled and tripled down, crudely comparing their business deal to Jóse Andrés’s humanitarian work in Puerto Rico. “Everyone gets so excited when José Andrés goes into these natural disasters and helps people,” she told the Times. “They ought to be happy that these two women are going into a man-made disaster to help make things right.”
Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of Dirt Candy, as well as an outspoken critic of the erasure of women in the restaurant world who’s written about the topic for Esquire, sees Hamilton’s decision as “a complete failure on every level.”
“Morally it’s cynical and shortsighted,” says Cohen. “Personally, I’m disappointed in what it reveals about the key players, but most importantly, as a business decision I don’t understand why you would want to tie yourself to a restaurant whose biggest attraction is something called the rape room. No one wants the burger at the Spotted Pig anymore, they want a selfie on the third floor. Why would you want to be associated with that?”
At the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen just days after the announcement, Hamilton said she couldn’t buy the Spotted Pig outright. According to an interview Merriman did with Eater, though, they weren’t looking to expand before this opportunity arose. Regardless, one would think the owner of a successful, nearly twenty-year-old restaurant would have ample access to capital — especially after being named Outstanding Chef at the James Beard Awards just this year.
As Food & Wine’s digital restaurant editor Maria Yagoda reported, fellow chef Traci des Jardin called it a “ ‘sad statement’ on the state of women in the industry.”
“Women mostly get covered when they get sexually assaulted or when they court controversy, as in this case,” says Cohen. “That’s not the most secure foundation for a multimillion-dollar investment in a restaurant, and if I was an investor I’d give my money to a male chef before I gave it to a female chef. Investing in the patriarchy is usually a safer bet.”
Hamilton, though, had seemingly infiltrated that patriarchy, winning prestigious awards and press coverage — something Cohen notes is especially key for restaurateurs.
“Who cares if [World’s 50 Best] thinks you’re one of the best restaurants in the world?” she says. “What matters is that being on that list raises your press profile to an astronomical degree and starts bringing a lot more people through your door, including international food tourists, judges for other awards, and people who use these lists to plan their vacations and are willing to spend a lot more on food and wine. When investors see that you can pull in these guests, they’re more likely to fund your next restaurant or your expansion, and it allows you to put more money into your restaurant and elevate the food and service, which brings in more guests and press, and so on, in a never-ending virtuous cycle. As long as women are left off these lists they’re shut out of these opportunities.”
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Cohen also points to the stories not being written, ones that wouldn’t focus necessarily on identity but on the work being done in food and restaurant culture.“There are so many amazing women and chefs of color out there running restaurants who get absolutely zero coverage,” she says. “There are still so many great articles to be written about the economics of restaurants that have nothing to do with gender. There are still so many great features to be written about why the best Thai chefs in New York all seem to be women, or what happened to the big wave of lady chefs from the Eighties, or the legacy of Anne Rosenzweig.”
Instead, the World’s 50 Best List is absurdly male-heavy. The New York Times food section, while reporting on sexual harassment in the industry, did not review a single woman-run restaurant between November 7, 2017 and May 1, 2018. The media and awards have let a few women, such as Hamilton and Bloomfield, stand in for the whole, which is why their collaboration with an abuser becomes such massive news and feels almost insurmountable. When we make heroes out of chefs, of any gender, the stories we tell never quite paint the entire picture.
The change will have to come from both people working behind the scenes and the media covering the industry, as restaurants helmed by abusers and harassers briefly assailed in the press continue to bring in customers as though it’s business as usual — because it is.
As Women’s History Month comes to a close, I’m having some cognitive dissonance figuring out how to address you. As a friend giving American women energy and hope? As an enemy out to undermine our safety and humanity? Depending on the day, you’re both. I guess that makes you a frenemy, bringing with you all the inconvenient contradictions we remember from the high school adversaries who pushed us to get stronger and bolder in order to prevail.
Along with that vengeful bully, 2017, you’ve ushered in an exceptionally effective period of feminist anger and organizing that has already led to structural changes we had always been told would be impossible. Yet that uprising is happening during and directly in response to intense political backlash against gender (and racial, economic, and social) justice. We wake up exhausted by the fresh hells every new day seems to bring, but we draw strength from the action and solidarity we find in myriad forms of resistance.
So, in honor of Women’s History Month, let’s look at why we are truly in the best of times, and the worst of times.
BEST: No one embodies the articulate rage and persuasive brilliance of the #NeverAgain youth anti-gun movement betterthan Emma González. In just a month and a half, the 18-year-old bisexual Cuban American Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student has emerged as a fearless leader. Not only did González’s politically forceful yet emotionally vulnerable “We call BS!” speech days after Nikolas Cruz murdered seventeen people in Parkland, Florida, help galvanize the nation, but she and her fellow activists are intersectional feminism and racial justicein action: Their organizing is racially, ethnically, and geographically diverse, a large percentage of its leaders are girls, and they keep checking their privilege and sharing their power. Following the shooting, Parkland organizers built respectful and intentional collaborations with kids of color from Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City, plus survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. White boys from Parkland have used their platform to call out media erasure of the activism and perspectives of Black students who’ve been attempting to combat gun violence across the country; at the same time, Black and Latinx teens across the country have spoken out, walked out, and taken a knee in protest, to draw attention to how racism, poverty, and a lack of resources combine to make gun violence an everyday problem in their communities — and how the media either ignores their struggles, or blames them for this systemic problem. They’ve already achieved passage of gun control legislation in Florida, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington, and via the federal spending bill; they’ve created enough pressure that a dozen corporations have cut ties with the NRA.
As hundreds of thousands of protesters attended last weekend’s March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., the organization of the rally displayed more strategic efficacy, savvy messaging, and political sophistication than many of the women’s rights, anti-war, and LGBTQ marches I’ve seen there over the last two decades. And González earned her place in history with a daring and instantly iconic piece of political artistry, interrupting her impassioned speech to stand in resolute silence, staring the country’s inaction in the face, until six minutes and twenty seconds had elapsed. Then, wiping away tears, she furiously explained that that was exactly how long Cruz took to complete his massacre. She left the crowd with this stark plea: “Fight for your lives before it is someone else’s job.”
WORST: These kids should never have been forced to take on the gun lobby as an act of self-defense. Bullets should not have stolen their childhoods, or killed their friends, family members, and loved ones in school, on sidewalks, or in movie theaters, dance clubs, and places of worship. They shouldn’t have to grow up in fear of shootings by classmates, cops, or white supremacists. And, when they manage to channel their trauma, fear, and outrage into compelling leadership for social change, these survivors damn well shouldn’t find themselves the targets of malicious misinformation and vicious attacks.
NRA spokespeople Loesch and Colion Noir have directly and indirectly insulted the Parkland survivors, while the organization’s supporters have attempted to smear the kids and all the student protesters who walked out or marched as “crisis actors” or puppets of liberal billionaires. “Gun rights” trolls doctored a Teen Vogue photo shoot featuring Emma González ripping up a gun target poster to make it appear as if she was destroying the U.S. Constitution, circulating the image thousands of times; similarly, Breitbart, InfoWars, and others pretended that Hogg gave a Nazi salute at the historic rally, and dubbed in audio and inserted video of the Hitler Youth over a clip of González’s speech. Leslie Gibson, a Republican candidate for Maine State House, tweeted that González was a “skinhead lesbian” and Hogg a “bald-faced liar” and a “moron.” (Hogg denounced the tweet and called for challengers to run against Gibson; days later, Democrat and Republican challengers filed paperwork to run, and Gibson dropped out of the race.)
BEST: The #MeToo movement — a project founded by activist Tarana Burke in 2007 to support sexual abuse survivors (especially women of color) — grew into a post–Harvey Weinstein viral hashtag campaign whose reckoning is changing America in palpable ways. Meticulousreporting about the movie mogul’s decades-long pattern of rape, sexual harassment, and intimidation of more than fifty women led to more journalism uncovering similar abuse by powerful men in nearly every workplace, from Hollywood to Congress, from newsrooms to producefields, restaurants, tech companies, academia, bodegas, and more. Farm workers and domestic workers collaborated with the rich and famous actresses who occupied the media’s initial attention, helping to expand the news frame from “Whoa, our favorite celebs were terrorized behind the scenes?” to “The epidemic of sexual abuse has an even more devastating impact on working-class, poor, and immigrant women because of economic insecurity and systemic racism.” And, for once, the news cycle didn’t drop the story; five months later, reporters, op-ed writers, anchors, and pundits continue to out abusers, who are no longer able to operate with impunity. Time named the #MeToo “Silence Breakers” 2017 Person of the Year.
And #MeToo’s feminist rage was not just righteous, it was productive. For the first time, we started to see actual consequences for powerful men and the many industries that previously protected them. Weinstein lost his job and is being targeted for potential criminal investigation, while his Weinstein Company filed for bankruptcy this month and revoked nondisclosure agreements that have silenced his past victims. NBC fired Today Show cash cow Matt Lauer, PBS fired Charlie Rose for his pattern of abuse, and NPR fired both chief news editor David Sweeney and vice president for news Michael Oreskes over their sexual misconduct. After Kevin Spacey’s long-term abuse of boys and men came to light, Netflix wrote him out of House of Cards and Christopher Plummer reshot all Spacey’s scenes in the already-completed film All the Money in the World.Mother Jones reported that at least fifteen elected officials announced within the past year that they “would resign, retire, or not seek re-election following accusations of sexual misconduct.” This is just a tiny fraction of the influential predators who have finally faced their comeuppance. (True story: This paragraph was initially 950 words long.) In the ongoing #MeToo reckoning, the public is finally supporting — and the media is finally believing — sexual abuse survivors.
WORST: Unless the abuser in question is one of the public’s faves, that is. Then, all bets are off, as illustrated by the intense backlash to attempts to hold progressive Democratic senator Al Franken of Minnesota (accused of groping and harassing behavior by at least eight women) and comedian and Netflix writer-producer-star Aziz Ansari (described as a coercive and predatory creep by a woman with whom he went on a date) accountable for their actions. Franken remained beloved even after he resigned under pressure from members of his own party, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand; she faced contempt. As journalist Jill Filipovic noted in Cosmopolitan, Gillibrand, a potential Trump challenger in 2020, was branded by pundits and Democratic donors alike as America’s “most devious and cunning politician,” a hypocrite, and a disloyal political opportunist leading a “McCarthyist” witch hunt and a “lynch mob” to unseat Franken without a hearing. On the pop culture front, three dozen women who worked with Franken on SNL decades ago signed a letter supporting him. Those who agreed that perpetrating sexual abuse renders even progressive leaders unfit for office were described throughout the media debate as naive and self-defeating for losing Franken’s reliably Left vote; Democratic senator Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, called the critiques of Franken “the most hypocritical thing I’ve ever seen done to a human being.”
The larger #MeToo backlash was even more insidious in response to a salacious exposé detailing how Ansari (who built his brand as a woke, pro-feminist comedian and literally wrote the book on Modern Romance) repeatedly ignored his date’s attempts to slow down or stop his sexual advances. The anonymous woman’s story itself wasn’t disbelieved — she was simply attacked for publicizing it, supposedly proof that #MeToo had “gone too far” (Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who has described the movement as “a war on people who don’t deserve to be hurt”). Over and over, in the Atlantic, on The View, on HLN, and in a torrent of other outlets, the incident was used to proclaim that #MeToo was a prudish “sex panic” ready to take down so-called good men like Ansari, whose actions were commonplace and “not as bad” as rape. Because she didn’t immediately leave or scream “no,” the accuser was deemed “appalling,” irresponsible, vindictive, and a fake victim, and talking about her experience amounted to nothing more than “revenge porn” over a “bad date.”
BEST: Nothing typifies the year’s contradictions more than the 90th Academy Awards, held on March 4. Disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein’s membership was revoked, something Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel celebrated in his opening monologue: “We need to set an example and the truth is if we are successful here, if we can work together to stop sexual harassment in the workplace,” he deadpanned, “women will only have to deal with harassment all the time at every other place they go.”
While Weinstein was banished from the ceremony, several of his victims were given pride of place. Along with Ashley Judd and Salma Hayek, Annabella Sciorra — whose film career was destroyed after Weinstein, according to her recent revelations, raped and terrorized her — referenced #MeToo and #TimesUp from the gilded Oscars stage, before introducing a video on gender and racial diversity in storytelling onscreen and behind the camera, featuring Mira Sorvino, another actress harassed and blacklisted by Weinstein. Best Actress winner Frances McDormand capped off the night with a fiery feminist speech encouraging actors to use “inclusion riders” to mandate proportional representation in films. By the time the Oscars aired, the #TimesUp Legal Defense Fund had raised $21 million and heard from 1,700 women from sixty industries coming forward for help with sexual harassment cases. Watching the live broadcast, you could almost forget that this was the same show that honored fugitive child rapist Roman Polanski as Best Director in 2002, or the same industry that petitioned for his release after he was arrested in Switzerland in 2009 on a warrant for that 1977 case.
WORST: You could almost forget…but not quite. The Academy’s supposed dedication to holding sexual abusers accountable crumbled when voters handed an Oscar to Kobe Bryant, who was arrested and charged with rape in 2003 and eventually apologized to his victim in court for nonconsensual sex, paying out an undisclosed civil settlement after criminal charges were dropped. Perhaps this is unsurprising when we consider the three recent sexual harassment complaints against John Bailey, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Yesterday, the Academy announced that an internal investigation “determined that no further action was merited.”) And time was definitely not up for Ryan Seacrest who, despite facing allegations of sexual harassment and assault by his former stylist, was protected by E! and allowed to control the tone and topics of questions on the red carpet.
BEST: On inauguration day in 2017, women set the record for the largest single day of protests in American history. Now, just as what happened on a smaller scale in 1992 (dubbed “the Year of the Woman” following the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings), they’re channeling that righteous rage by running for office in unprecedented numbers. At least 575 women have declared that they will campaign for the House, Senate, or governor this election cycle, including many first-time candidates. EMILY’s List knocked down a wall in its D.C. office to accommodate new staff to handle 30,000 inquiries from women interested in potentially running for office. And a new website, Black Women in Politics, offers a searchable database of 573 (and counting) Black women candidates, including 98 running for federal, 200 for state, and 249 for local offices (26 are coded “not specified”). Of these, 364 are challengers, and 333 are running in red states.
In one of the most exciting of these races, Stacy Abrams has a strong shot at becoming Georgia’s first Black female governor, raising $2.5 million for her war chest so far. Also looking to flip Georgia blue? Lucia McBath, an anti-gun activist with Moms Demand Action and one of the Mothers of the Movement (her son, Jordan Davis, was murdered in 2012), who is running for the state House of Representatives. And after Republican representative Randy Hultgren, of Illinois, broke his promise to save the Affordable Care Act, Lauren Underwood, a 31-year-old nurse and former senior advisor in President Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services, decided to run for Hultgren’s seat — against six middle-aged white men. She is the first Black woman ever to run in Illinois’s 14th District, which has never elected a female congressional representative.
Underwood’s bid may seem like a pipe dream, but as transgender former journalist Danica Roem recently proved, nothing’s impossible. Last year, when thirteen-term Republican incumbent Robert G. Marshall tried to pass a transphobic bathroom bill, 33-year-old Roem launched a bid to unseat the state delegate — then defeated Marshall by nearly ten points. In ousting the man who called himself the state’s “chief homophobe” and ran ads attacking her as a “bathroom predator,” Roem became the first openly transgender person to ever be elected to any state legislature in America. When asked about Marshall after the election, she replied, “I don’t attack my constituents. Bob is my constituent now.” That may be the closest a politician has ever come to throwing Mariah Carey–style “I don’t know her” shade.
WORST: The Nazi-coddling Pussy Grabber in Chief still occupies the Oval Office. For now. (Paging Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Maxine Waters, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Tammy Duckworth: 2020 is calling.)
So, 2018, your potent combination of revolutionary hope and regressive backlash has given me whiplash. But as Women’s History Month draws to a close, let’s raise a glass to American women’s increased demands for electoral power, sane public policy, an end to sexual abuse and gender and racial discrimination, and safety for our children (informed by our children). While you open the wine, I’ll put on some music. How about “Stormy Weather”?
Had I visited Babbo but a few months ago, I could have waxed poetic about how, as one enters the doors of the gracious former West Village stable house, through brocaded curtains into a hard-partying cathedral of culinary splendor, the light glows divine and the stereo blasts R.E.M. It would have been a paean to pasta, an encomium of agnolotti, a panegyric to panna cotta. Had the muse sung in me, as it sung in the New Yorker’s Bill Buford — Mario Batali’s Boswell,who more or less made the man with his book Heat! — more than a decade ago, I might have exalted Babbo and its flame-headed creator, a son of Dionysus and Seattle named Mario. Praise be unto the house built of flour and water.
It’s easy to see why Buford cast Batali as his Hemingway-ian hero. The man behind Babbo — incidentally the Tuscan word for papa — had rescued Italian food from both the red-sauce ghetto and the unambitious luxury of Il Mulino and its ilk on the other side of Washington Square Park. He had spread himself like ’nduja into the West Village with Otto and Lupa Osteria Romana and positioned himself as the profane savior of vera cucina italiana. He worked and lived and partied in the Village, zooming through the narrow streets — a big man in orange clogs on a tiny bike, half SNL send-up, half commedia dell’arte. Then came more restaurants like Bar Jamón and Casa Mono, La Sirena and Del Posto; even larger deals; television shows with Gwyneth Paltrow; television shows without Gwyneth Paltrow; a library of books; more restaurants; a piece of the Spotted Pig; Eataly, a massive Italian emporium; products from orange clogs to pasta sauces; and a production company, no joke, called Alta Via, the High Road. Mario Batali was too big to fail.
But that was then. In late December, after Eater revealed allegations of sexual harassment by the chef, Batali was banished from his own castle and Babbo entered the bardo, that cosmic Buddhist waiting room where sins and mitzvot are tallied. “Revelations,” ha! What soft-shoe self-exculpatory hogwash I find myself peddling. What was revealed wasn’t Batali’s behavior but our long-standing tolerance of it. Go back and reread Heat!, because if that isn’t a slavering apologia for a creep, written by a pie-eyed prig for the delectation of the inner men’s-rights activist that lurks in the hearts of all bourgeoisie, I don’t know what is!
In the fall, cast out too was Frank Langello, Babbo’s longtime lieutenant and chef at Babbo who, in an almost touching act of idolatry, imitated his boss’s inappropriate touching. Joe Bastianich, another partner at Babbo, has come in for censure for comments that can only be described as deplorable and, more damningly, for knowing lots and doing nothing to stay Batali’s lech. As it happens, Babbo was built on a lot more than flour and water. It was a boys’ club in which many women were viewed as little more than skirt steak, which, coincidentally, appears on the menu today, barbecued, with endives alla piastra — that is, grilled — and is, like everything I ate on a pair of recent visits to Babbo, delicious.
How do we solve a problem like Babbo? What to make of the $95 pasta tasting menu, still one of the best surveys of pasta’s promise in the city? Whither its tangle of jet-black tagliatelle tossed with crisp pancetta, and what of the sunny UES-via-Vicenza casunzei, half-moons of brightly colored ravioli stuffed with beets and topped with scallions and a peppy poppyseed sauce? Where does one cram or cache, how does one launder or withdraw the joy that comes from Babbo’s kitchen, now that the kitchen has been shown to be an ethical Superfund site? Into what secret moral pockets does one slip the floppy tricorner ravioli, stuffed with crushed squab liver and beef cheek, buried under a flurry of black truffle? Is even the straightforward pleasure of an appetizer of fresh marinated sardines drizzled with lobster oil, pinwheels of headless fillets arranged like a small fish mandala, tainted by the untoward actions of the hands of the man that made them?
With Batali gone and Langello axed, the new man in the kitchen is Rob Zwirz — a “very Zen guy,” according to the tie-wearing bartender — who came from Lupa Osteria Romana across the park. Zwirz has been well-trained. From a gustatory perspective, Babbo has lost none of its zing. Special mention must be made too of the work of Rebecca DeAngelis, Babbo’s pastry chef, who zhuzhes staid offerings like tiramisu in a perfect discus of cacao and espresso and tops a silky vanilla panna cotta with huckleberry compote.
But I cannot speak of DeAngelis’s work without thinking of Isaac Franco Nava, a former pastry chef who was fired in 2017, hounded out by years of homophobic and racist harassment. Nava sued Batali et al. for discrimination, alleging, among other things, that DeAngelis, his supervisor, did nothing to stop it.
Perhaps because we — me! yes, me too — celebrated Batali’s prodigal persona as integral to his prodigal flavors, Babbo’s hidebound menu serves as a damning bill of indictment. Every squab liver crushed; every cow’s tongue charred or sweetbread dusted with fennel; every act of culinary bravado summons from the shadows its ballast, that inexcusable act which we chose not to see because, damn, the man knows from flavor.
On a recent Monday night, Babbo’s dining room was buzzing with people who either didn’t know or didn’t care that the chef de maison had been run out of town. In the most charitable reading of the situation, perhaps they had read that Batali had “stepped away” from his businesses and had assumed this put them in the clear. But to “step away” is as vague and ill-defined an act as sending thoughts and prayers. There is no legal or financial implication to “stepping away.” Mario Batali gently wafted away from his businesses, he hoochie coo’d, he saut de basqued. There are many ways to step. What he hasn’t done is divest. And what that means is that a non-negligible fraction of the monies one leaves on the white tablecloth at the end of the meal finds its way into Batali’s pocket. He is not here, but his dividends are. His sins squeeze through the tables. He is a hungry ghost.
Arguments can and have been made that avoiding Babbo — or, for that matter, John Besh’s restaurants or Ken Friedman’s or the enterprises of any of the other chefs, artists, businessmen, producers, showrunners, actors, singers, politicians, sculptors, photographers, editors, writers, illustrators, entrepreneurs that have been called out for harassment — just punishes those who have already been victimized: the employees. Surely not every member of the waitstaff or kitchen staff at Babbo is guilty. And despite glib claims otherwise, restaurant jobs don’t grow on trees. There would be real disruption to lives and families if everyone boycotted Babbo. Burn it all down and years of wisdom and genius become ash too.
But the question is: Who lit the match? Certainly not the patron who wishes to avoid supporting a predator. Batali built his foundations rotten, buried in Babbo a secret bomb, stank up the place with his moral flatulence. Our responsibility isn’t to provide sin absorption, by frequenting the place out of misguided noblesse oblige for his staff. Our responsibility is not to eat the fruit — or farfalle — of a poison tree. If Babbo fails, this is the inexorable ripening of karma, the late-onset mortalities of years of depravity. The blame, like the money, flows to Batali.
There is, however, a glimpse of how Babbo is reborn. In the Buddhist tradition, one of the kindest things one can do to a dead person is to tell them they have died. This allows them to enter more quickly into the bardo. It convinces them to unpry from this life the cold fingers of ambition, the grasping of ego in rigor mortis. I can see why Batali might dread that calculus. But his ghost haunts Babbo these chill nights, spoiling the extra-virgin olive oil and tainting the pasta. Someone should whisper in his ear that he has died. For it is time for him to go. And until he does, Babbo will remain lost in limbo.
In 2008, when Hillary Clinton was first running for the American presidency, Peggy Orenstein worried what her daughter would learn from the misogyny directed at the then-senator during the election campaign. Clinton, Orenstein writes in her new collection, Don’t Call Me Princess: Essays on Girls, Women, Sex, and Life, represented “a reflection, a freeze frame of the complications and contradictions of female success.”
Today, you might expect that Orenstein would be a basket case. Instead, she is optimistic about what she sees as the new “ocean” of feminism. “For years it was so unfashionable to be a feminist,” Orenstein told me. “But these days, I feel like I’m in vogue!”
Orenstein began her writing career in 1982 as an intern for Ms. magazine. In the three-plus decades since, she has contributed to the New York Times Magazine and produced bestsellers such as Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Schoolgirls. In Don’t Call Me Princess, Orenstein revisits her writing from ten, twenty, and thirty years ago — revealing that many of the themes she wrote about then are relevant today.
I spoke with Orenstein about her thoughts on nonverbal consent, Twitter feminists, what porn teaches kids, and other topics. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
In a piece about raising your daughter, you wondered whether you were “surfing a washed-out second wave of feminism in a third-wave world.” How can you apply lessons from second-wave feminism today?
I was kind of two and a half, to be honest. Perched between those two, I could see both the value and the limits of both.
Obviously, there is so much that we take for granted now that second-wave feminism accomplished. Things like being able to have a credit card. Yet, there are systemic issues that we keep having to address in different ways for different generations, in kind of a spiral. Everybody’s pushing it a little further, adjusting it, in the way that makes sense for the time.
The branding is so much better [today]. Instead of civil rights and feminism, we have #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. They’ve just found each other. That is a sign of the times that we are in. But the serious issues beneath those little pippy hashtags are the same, and important. It’s so exciting to see people care again.
I think Emma González [who gave the speech after the shootings in Parkland, Florida] is the face of the new activism, and it’s such an amazing face.
Can you expand on that? Are we still in the third wave of feminism, which started in the Nineties? What defines the wave we’re currently riding?
We used to think we were “post-feminist.” That was really popular for a while. Now, I think we are post-wave. It’s just the whole ocean now. There’s no single wave that’s washing up anymore. It’s too big for that.
You have written that self-objectification is part of the rite of passage to adulthood for many teen girls. But where’s the line between self-objectification and exploitation?
Ha, if I could answer that. It’s an ever-shifting line, not only culturally, but for every woman. And it can change from moment to moment, depending on if you’re walking down a threatening street or in a room with your best friends. You can wear the same outfit. It can feel totally differently to you. There’s no easy answer. Every woman has to work that out for herself. And it changes at different ages, at different stages.
What was concerning me was merging the idea of sexiness and sexuality. Girls were very attached to this idea of expressing sexuality through appearance — yet they would say, “I’m proud of my body. I never feel more liberated than when I wear skimpy clothes.” But they weren’t enjoying or understanding their bodies’ responses, and sometimes even felt shame about their genitals, or other aspects of their body. So who cares how much you express your sexuality through appearance, if you have no relationship to your body’s responses?
Self-objectification is related to body distortion, to negative body image, to eating disorders, to self-harm, to depression, to lower sense of political efficacy, to depressed cognition, all these things. How empowering is that?
In the age of the internet, is our definition of “sexy” becoming narrower?
I was just at a porn convention. And I was looking at the performers who were walking around. And 99.999 percent of them looked exactly the same. They had big, poofy, usually blonde hair. They had puffed up their lips beyond any normalcy. They had huge implants. They were wearing little, tiny, lacy undergarments or something see-through, five-inch heels, and had long painted nails. They were basically like the extreme of the definition of “hot.” I thought, “God, this is boring!”
And, “Why is this thing that requires us to so alter our appearance and be so hyper-aware of everything we eat, spend so much money on hair, and makeup, and clothing, and implants — why is that empowering?”
The increasing level of artificiality has changed, partly, because it could. Things didn’t exist in the past that allowed you to easily inflate your lips, and breasts, quite so readily. And people used to have [pubic] hair, too. But earlier generations thought the idea of self-objectification was something to push back against. For young women today, it’s sold as a form of empowerment, often the form of “self-expression.”
You write that there’s “unprecedented scrutiny towards our intimate parts as women” — yet many of the teen girls you interviewed are deeply ashamed of and embarrassed by these parts.
Women’s genital self-image, as a concept, is under siege. There are new norms around pubic hair and also an exponential rise in labiaplasty among young women. It shows that women feel that they have to prepare and that there’s a right and a wrong way for your vulva to look.
We learn that we’re supposed to feel shame. That we’re not supposed to touch ourselves. Fewer than half of girls fourteen to seventeen have ever masturbated — the only time they’re touching themselves is to shave off their hair. We learn there’s a taboo and a shame around our genitals, in a totally mundane way.
The women who were opening feminine sex-toy stores in the mid-Seventies were making an attempt to radically change that. I grew up in the wake of this. I learned that masturbation was a form of women’s power. That you’re responsible for your own orgasm and you have a right to it. That sex was political as well as personal.
I learned that from women a generation ahead of me — somehow my generation did not communicate that downward.
I’d also say we need to teach the importance of not just sex, but of what happens after sex.
I’m working on a book on boys and sexual and emotional intimacy because I feel like I only wrote one-half of an equation. It’s really important to actively include boys and men in that conversation. One thing that concerned me was how many girls, if I asked, “Do you masturbate?” would say, “No, I have a boyfriend to do that.” His idea of “sexual pleasure” was to rummage around inside of the woman like he was looking for a set of car keys. Especially in high school, there was a certain level of, let’s just say, ineptitude.
So you’re putting your pleasure in the hands of somebody else. Secondly, you’re giving it to somebody who doesn’t even know what they’re doing.
I was really interested, with [my book] Girls & Sex, in what was happening after consent. “I was not raped,” is a very low bar for a sexual experience — so what do we need to be talking to young people about? How can we talk with our partners to create a sexual experience that’s ethical, reciprocal, enjoyable — that doesn’t come out like “Cat Person”?
What do you think about the push for verbal consent? And the more complicated issue of nonverbal consent, cues, like what came up in the Aziz Ansari debate?
The thing with the Aziz Ansari case that I thought was so interesting was getting beyond whether it should or shouldn’t have been reported. I felt like there was so much going on and that what surfaced was something really ordinary, typical — the kind of script that both men and women run by that prioritizes male pleasure, that is kind of porn-y, that, for women, involves a lot of double-thinking, like, “Is this really happening? Do I want this?” This unwillingness to know what they know in a certain way, and fear of speaking about that.
Many people asked why Grace didn’t just get up and walk away. That’s easy to say to the outside of that dynamic — but we all know, as women, that there are many times when you feel a pressure that is cultural and bigger than you, and you don’t get up and walk away. Does that make what happened illegal? No, but it makes it unethical and unnecessary.
Even if it was unethical, I think this issue is complicated by the fact that this was an intimate story, and it was unclear whether Ansari did something that justified being publicly called out.
I remain agnostic about that. But in terms of what can happen from here, it is a tremendous opportunity to really have this conversation about what a mutual, reciprocal, communicative sexual relationship looks like and what the cultural scripts are that men run on and the cultural scripts that women run on, and the ways that those end up just being on completely different tracks and often disastrously so.
Could #MeToo ever go too far?
I don’t feel like we’re at that point. Any time you push something, people immediately say, “You’re going too far.” But we have so far to go on this. We expect a backlash — that’s inevitable. I don’t think you can fear it, though.
It’s going to happen regardless of what we do or don’t do. The entire decade of the Eighties was consumed with backlash. There were years where people would not be interested in what I wanted to write. Editors would not be interested in what I wanted to write, because they wanted something “contrarian.” What they meant by “contrarian” was a woman who would say the things that (some) men wanted to say but couldn’t, because it would make them look sexist.
Someone like Katie Roiphe? What’s your reaction to her argument that “Twitter feminists” are dominating the #MeToo discussion with an extreme, angry voice that leaves out opposing viewpoints?
Katie is kind of one of those contrarian women that I was talking about: “It’s just bad sex. Don’t be a baby. Suck it up.” That is a way to shut down discussion and interrogation of what’s going on in the dynamics of men’s and women’s lives. All those ideas about gender and power and equality and income disparity and violence and well-being — all of those things are contained in our relationship with the other sex. And that doesn’t mean that you walk around saying my marriage is political or whatever, but it’s there.
When you say it’s just bad sex, what does “just” mean? Why is that OK? Does it mean the person should be thrown in jail? Maybe not — but to say it’s no big deal, that’s wrong.
The danger of Twitter is that people pile on and destroy people. And that, that is real, and that’s not specific to the women’s movement — it can be a very toxic place. But I don’t think that what she’s saying is really correct.
You write about what porn — which can now be streamed — teaches young people about sex. What did you find?
In 2005, Pornhub came online. For the first time, you could stream porn — for free. You no longer needed a credit card. That meant that children had access to porn in a way that was unprecedented.
If it was on your computer or your phone, of course you’re going to look at it! On top of that, no parents, no schools, are having any conversations with teenagers about what a sexual relationship should look like. Only thirteen states require sex ed to be medically accurate. So [kids] turn to porn even though they know, on some level, that it’s unrealistic. They look to it as a guide, a script. One of the saddest things about it is that it makes it so you’ve lost the opportunity for imagination about what sexuality is, what sex could be like, what you dream of. It becomes this prescribed thing about what you see online.
When kids are starting to see porn when they’re eleven, particularly boys, they’re really learning arousal and release — before they masturbate for the first time, and they’re learning to masturbate with it. So they’re linking their sexuality to porn from the get-go. That becomes an issue when they go into a room with an actual person. It may be why millennials are having less sex. Why bother?
With girls, there’s a lot of pressure to “be the porn star” in the bedroom. To engage in acts that might not even feel good — because it’s more about how you look to somebody else than understanding your own desire and feelings.
You have a fourteen-year-old daughter. I’m sure you don’t control what she’s watching, so how do you talk to her about sex?
We talk about this stuff all the time. There’s a podcast by Jon Ronson called The Butterfly Effect about the impact of Pornhub — on people, on kids, everything. I talked to her about what he found, saying, “This is the impact on the performers, how they don’t make any money, they end up being exploited,” [etc.]. The argument has shifted from “porn is degrading to women” to “porn is harming boys’ ability to engage in a healthy sexual interaction.” That may be a more effective warning to young men than “it’s degrading to women” — which they usually don’t care very much about.
I always wonder: Why? Why is degradation of women the fantasy? I don’t get that.
It’s not like I was born able to have a conversation about porn with my fourteen-year-old. I had just as little vocabulary as anybody — I was forced to develop it. I have to get over my discomfort and qualms to do it, but you don’t get to pick and choose when you parent — you have to step up.
“…and the increasing public awareness that the proclivities of terrible men are not just a behind-the-scenes concern but are instead much of the reason that so many studio (and major indie) releases are so limited in their thematic reach.” —Alan Scherstuhl
“We shall see if it has significant impact on hiring — not just firing — going forward.” —Anne Thompson
“My hope is for a domino effect across all industries. So far the winds of change have mostly blown in entertainment and politics, which makes sense, I suppose, since these are highly visible positions. Where are the shamed bosses at, I dunno, General Motors, and every other big corporation? The U.S. Department of Agriculture? Your local Panera Bread? Or a tiny stationery store with a terrorized employee who works the quiet shift? Bosses are bosses no matter where you go, and many of them are abusing their power. This is a fact. Maybe this will change.” —Jordan Hoffman
“I have repeatedly tried to write about this, but it went from shock to cliché in about two weeks. There has been some excellent writing inspired by the #MeToo campaign and critics, mostly women, coming to terms with their now-tainted appreciation of Woody Allen and Louis C.K., but if I read one more ‘review’ of Wonder Wheel that spends 600 words calling Allen a pedophile, you will be able to hear my scream in New Jersey.” —Steve Erickson
“That was a loooooooooong time coming!” —Craig D. Lindsey
“Hollywood started taking sexual harassment and assault seriously, even going so far as to erase certain individuals from the public eye completely. I shed no tears for them. But let’s not kid ourselves. Taking down a few bad apples won’t in and of itself dismantle structural sexism and racism. This could very well be another self-congratulatory gesture from a pseudo-liberal industry that loves nothing better than patting itself on the back.” —Michael Sicinski
“Still waiting for Woody Allen and Roman Polanski to experience some of those consequences though!” —Ren Jender
“Prefaced by the fallout from the Faraci–Alamo Drafthouse controversy, the reckoning begun by the Weinstein allegations seemed even more of a shake-up to the current power system. There is more to be done, but at least women’s voices are being heard and believed.” —Elizabeth Stoddard
“Harvey Weinstein is no more. And as he went down so too have a slew of other alleged abusers. We’re saying ‘enough’ with a bullying and abusive culture that has too long thrived in Hollywood (and beyond). And we’re already seeing a shift with the reshoots of All the Money in the World, the cancellation of I Love You, Daddy’s release, and more. I’m hopeful these waves will continue to rock the film world, and from it will rise a more inclusive and healthier system that’s nonetheless creative and thrilling. After all, there’s plenty of artists out there who don’t need to bully to be great.”
“May he rot in hell.” —Odie Henderson
On Twin Peaks and category anxiety:
“Twin Peaks: The Return was the clear cinematic event of the year, hence it deserves my number one slot. But it’s not a film, hence it doesn’t deserve any slot. I’m a man of compromise, hence it gets my number ten slot.” —Eric Henderson
“I expect to see outward ripples from David Lynch’s magnum opus through the whole of filmmaking for years to come.” —Alice Stoehr
“Twin Peaks: The Return: This was a season of television, not a film. Big Little Lies: also not a film. The season finale of Nathan for You: also not a film. Some random episode of Barney Miller: also not a film. This Is Not a Film (2011, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb): a film.” —Mike D’Angelo
“Please do not send me your angry category fraud comments about Twin Peaks, we’ve done this dance many times already. The ballot said it was OK!” —Vadim Rizov
On Netflix, Amazon, and Hollywood’s ongoing “distribution fuckery”:
“For better, worse, and all the rest, including Cannes jury bickering, Netflix made its intentions to be, if not the home of the best original films, definitely home to the most original films.” —Alison Willmore
“Mainstream movies are officially boring. In 2017 — somehow even worse than in 2016 or 2015 or 2014 — the only films to hit major screens were franchise entries. Variety is the spice of life, and the multiplex is now (more than ever!) an unseasoned bowl of gruel or those slimy bug bars the proles eat in Snowpiercer. I know, the market has spoken, and the ‘adult’ fare that used to fill screens before and after summer blockbuster season moved over to Netflix and Amazon. But I don’t have to like it. Things have gotten so bad I now miss middlebrow biopics and reductive history lessons and vanilla dramas. I hated those films too, and once upon a time I wished they’d go away forever. I now realize I’ve stumbled into my very own version of The Monkey’s Paw: They did go away, but in their place came nothing but interchangeable comic book movies. Bring back blandly inspiring docudramas! Bring back Scott Hicks!” —Matt Prigge
“This was actually a great year for film, but because of theatrical distribution fuckery, even attentive audiences who regularly went to art houses missed out on some of the best films, most egregiously BPM (Beats Per Minute) but also Thelma and Netflix-distributed films like Mudbound and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).” —Ren Jender
On films that showed HIV+ people having sex:
“Not only did HIV+ people get to have sex, they got to feel sexy doing it. BPM, in particular, understands the political implications of being queer on a molecular level.” —Kyle Turner
And another thing…:
“2017 was a bad year in many regards, but the cinema continues to provide us with a vibrant cultural conversation on an array of topics. Oh yeah, and Twin Peaks came back and it was awesome.” —Sean Mulvihill
“I, Tonya: 120 minutes. Thor: Ragnarok: 130 minutes. Molly’s Game: 140 minutes. The Last Jedi: 152 minutes. Movies have gotten too damn long.” —Michael Sicinski
“2017 was a sensational year for cinema. The superhero genre got sophisticated with Logan. Monsters danced. Man-eating mermaids sang, and the world fell hard for Wonder Woman, Rey, and an angry misfit who calls herself Lady Bird. Instead of the standard parade of stern biopics for award season, we were gifted foul-mouthed heroines, a peachy gay romance, a dreamy love story where girl meets beast, and a fearless and challenging horror movie. It was a year full of surprises and films so beautiful, moving, and unique that many felt like miracles.” —Kristy Puchko
“Here’s what you should do in 2018: Once a week this year, watch a movie that was made before the year you were born. Make sure one out of four each month is in a language other than English. (Assuming English is your native tongue, that is.) FilmStruck will help, and FilmStruck is a blessing. But: If you live in New York City, you have no excuse not to see a lot of these IN A THEATER WHERE THEY BELONG. The Quad, MOMA, MOMI, BAM, Anthology, Film Forum, IFC, Metrograph, the Alamo Drafthouse, the French Institute, and others are mixing it up for you every single night. Money is tight, I know, but bag your lunch Monday and Tuesday and you’ve earned your Wednesday ticket. (Bring in Junior Mints from Duane Reade.) Movies at home are OK, but it’s really not the same.” —Jordan Hoffman
To see the winners from this year’s Village Voice Film Poll, click here
Earlier this month, at the Television Critics Association press event in Los Angeles, Rose McGowan and a team of producers gathered for a panel on the E! documentary CITIZEN ROSE, which premieres tonight. Usually these panels are preceded by a sizzle reel of highlights or a short video introduction from a performer. McGowan’s clip was different. She spoke directly into what appeared to be a laptop webcam, which cut off her face so you couldn’t see her eyes. In a low but emphatic voice, she implored the room full of critics to be respectful—and to refrain from uttering the name that we were all thinking. As she spoke, images of her dancing listlessly in a sheer white dress began to overlap the webcam video. A friend later told me she heard a couple dudes sitting behind her snickering throughout the clip.
Sure, those guys were pricks. But I have to admit, I found myself fighting that same gut reaction to CITIZEN ROSE, an extremely personal portrait of Harvey Weinstein’s loudest accuser in the weeks following the outpouring of rape and assault allegations against the once-powerful producer. “Do I make you uncomfortable?” McGowan asks in voiceover at the start. “Good.” Her face fills the screen – properly framed, this time — and she stares at the camera head-on, fingers swiping below her eyes as if erasing phantom tears. Swarming the image are overlapping visions of a younger McGowan, in different roles throughout her early career — “The one you’ve read about,” she narrates. The whole thing has an ambient, art-school feel; I half expected her to start painting a canvas with her menstrual blood.
At times she might come across as unhinged. When Amber Tamblyn visits her in a New York hotel room, McGowan tells her she was too afraid to open the door earlier to accept a delivery. The two embrace as Tamblyn prepares to leave, and McGowan whispers, “If I die you have to keep all my work to be studied.” If that sounds crazy, well, what’s crazier is that McGowan is totally right. She should be paranoid; Weinstein allegedly had the fucking Mossad following her!
Over two hours, we follow McGowan from speaking engagements to interviews to private hotel meetings. At one point, we accompany her to a magistrate’s office in Virginia, where she turns herself in on charges of drug possession — she and her lawyer contend the drugs were planted, more of Weinstein’s handiwork. Most often, the viewer is her interlocutor: She peers directly into the camera, her big brown eyes daring us to confront the woman behind the headlines. “I’ve had the monster stuck to me for twenty years,” she says; McGowan has accused Weinstein of raping her in a hotel room at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997. Throughout the doc, she refers to him only as “the monster,” and when anchors say his name in clips of newscasts, it’s digitally altered to sound like gibberish. When his picture appears onscreen, his eyes are blacked out.
CITIZEN ROSE is strongest at the start, when it juxtaposes McGowan’s present-day anguish with the media coverage of her as a starlet in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Young Rose obediently perches on late-night talk show couches, poses on the red carpet, and peers out from the covers of magazines in skin-tight dresses, her long, dark hair framing her dimpled chin. The images are superimposed on top of each other, a hazy collage of manufactured sexuality; it’s a period she characterizes as “the selling of me as a bad girl.” What the Hollywood-media complex peddled as a come-hither, brooding gaze, McGowan reveals, is actually the “vacant” stare of a woman completely detached from her own self.
Now 44, McGowan seems to relish showing us what a real Hollywood “bad girl” looks like: We see her in her bathroom, shaving her head and singing along to her own music (in 2015, she released a single with the French electro band Punishment), two white sheet masks under her eyes like battle paint. We see her in the streets, marching alongside other women demanding an end to domestic violence. We hear her speak at the Women’s Convention in Detroit, with an introduction by civil rights activist Tarana Burke, the woman who a decade ago coined the phrase “Me too.” In her speech, McGowan calls Hollywood the “messaging system of your mind.” By the end of the talk, every woman in the room is on her feet, screaming and cheering.
“My name is Rose McGowan,” she concludes, “and I am brave and I am you!”
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Of course, not every woman in that convention center has the profile or the means to alchemize her trauma into a commercial venture like CITIZEN ROSE. McGowan repeatedly tells the camera that she’s doing this for all the women out there who’ve been hurt, and while I don’t doubt the sentiment, I sometimes found it hard to take at face value — especially in a film that showcases how every person who crosses McGowan’s path, whether it’s Ronan Farrow or Asia Argento or some dude outside a gas station convenience store, congratulates her on her bravery. McGowan criticizes the Time’s Up movement — she tells the camera that the all-black outfits planned as a “protest” at the Golden Globes were just a PR stunt — which was launched by a group of powerful Hollywood women in the New Year with the goal of ending systemic workplace abuse; it includes a legal defense fund for women across industries. McGowan may have plans of her own she doesn’t reveal in the film, but on its own, CITIZEN ROSE comes off more as a promotional opportunity for her forthcoming book, Brave, than any outward-facing initiative. (E! also plans to run four more episodes of CITIZEN ROSE in the spring.)
There’s a lack of context to much of what ends up on the screen, like the “Rose Army Retreat” we witness in Colorado in November 2017, or just what exactly it means to be a member of the Rose Army. At one point, McGowan takes a stab at a definition, explaining that Rose Army is a “secret code” that means “you think differently.” (The top Google result leads you to RoseArmy.com, where you can sign up to an email list.) She also says the name isn’t a reference to herself, but to the flower, because she once saw a picture of a rose pushing up through cracks in concrete. Also, they have thorns.
So, yes, my eyes rolled at some of this, and at the spectacle of a celebrity — one who is undoubtedly traumatized yet has access to support and a cheering public that the average victim of sexual assault does not — performing a kind of grief that too many women know all too well. And yet performance is a natural mode for someone who’s been onscreen since she was a teenager. McGowan has dared to enter uncharted territory for a woman in Hollywood — to go rogue like this and find that you have actual support, however self-serving the industry backing (the E! series, the book deal) may ultimately prove to be.
I suppose McGowan’s critique of Time’s Up as a cynical PR fix could apply to CITIZEN ROSE. There’s a clear difference of intent here, though — hers isn’t to smooth away the rough edges of this moment as red-carpet solidarity might, but to call attention to them. And anyway, to say it’s unseemly for Rose McGowan to profit off this moment seems fundamentally backward. This moment is happening in large part because of her refusal to sit down and shut up. The least we could do is listen to what she has to say.